When Gary Cross proposes that Christmas has sequestered from a time of celebrating the “nuclear family” (59) to a display of “vicarious consumption” through gift giving, I have to disagree. This view is vastly too cynical of the American people. A people that donated $290.89 billion to charities in 2010 (nps.gov), has companies such as Macy’s with their “Make a Wish, Believe” campaign, and that are emotionally moved by commercials that epitomize the ”giving” Christmas spirit (tear jerker warning.) The underlying motivation around Christmas is not to display how well off one is financially. The underlying motivation is too make those around you, and especially children, happier. Witnessing the jubilance in children around Christmas is guaranteed to make your life more blissful. This eagerness to make one’s children joyful may seem to accumulate in the form of “vicarious consumption” but that is because in some instances to make younger children happier it requires buying the most up to date gadget or toy. Therefore, the end result of the gift is a display of proof, that yes, you can provide your child with happiness but the primary motivation was not to “peacock” your wealth, it results as a byproduct. A good analogy would be when you drive your car. The intentions are good. You want to go to work and add to society. However, the result of fossil fuels going into the air still occurs. You cannot stop this end result and you accept it without conscious thought. The same is true with the byproduct, of providing your children with merriment, being produced as “vicarious consumption”.
This argument is hard to see today sometimes because the advertisers try too engulf us into this competitive “buy everything before everyone else” mindset around Christmas. From Targets “Black Friday Holiday Sales” commercials, to Best Buy’s “Game On Santa” campaign, it seems as though the media wants us competing for all that is consumer goods. Say you are persuaded by these ads, is it even a bad thing? We have to remember, that Target and Best Buy are not just abstract companies. Companies are made of people. When the company sales go down, employees get laid off and then those employees cannot provide a Happy Christmas for their children. It is the companies job to drive sales in whichever way they feel is best for this purpose.
To conclude, I post one last link of a kid going nuts over receiving a new Nintendo 64. After watching this video, if you still believe “vicarious consumption” is the main motivator in Christmas purchases, send me a PM. I would love to engage in some insightful discussion.
(*Final Note-in the first paragraph I state that kids want the newer, up to date gadgets and toys. This is not a bad thing. This is a natural phenomenon in humans. Without it we do not have WordPress as a medium to even discuss such issues. The desire to want newer and better materials leads to innovation that in the end will help everyone for a “rising tide raises all boats”)Read more
Christmas spirit has been lost, and in turn replaced with feelings of competition and greed. The joys of Christmas are now dependent upon the types and amount of gifts children receive on Christmas morning. Of course, parents want nothing more than to make their child happy, but in order to achieve such in today’s world, one must be prepared to empty their wallets and hope for Christmas bonuses. Christmas is also a time of year for families to display their wealth, and hope that their gifts can compete with, if not trump, those of their neighbors.
In Gary Cross’s article “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys”, Cross states: “But in the nineteenth century these celebrations of indulgence were increasingly focused on the family, in parents pampering children. The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence” (59). Many children today seem to get whatever they ask for, resulting in a generation of spoiled children, and parents are the ones to blame. Competition drives parents into a shopping frenzy, and it seems that most families believe that overspending on your child is better than being out-shined by your neighbor.
The amount and quality of the gifts given to children today has increased in comparison to previous years, as seen by this 10-year old girl receiving a cell phone for Christmas. This girl is one example of the many kids that are now getting cell phones, ipads, and other gadgets at such young ages. Through this gift exchange, the girl is happy, and her parents are able to maintain their reputation within the community, for they are able to keep their child up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies.
Jimmy Kimmel challenged the previously discussed trend of overindulging your children with gifts on Christmas on his late night show. He asked parents to give their kids a gift they would not want for Christmas, and to record their reaction upon opening the present. As one could guess, the kids’ reactions were a combination of upset and anger. This experiment effectively portrayed the expectations children hold in regards to the types of gifts they receive, and the disbelief they have upon not getting what they want.
The vicious cycle of consumerism and competition dominate our society, and it is made especially apparent during the holiday season. It will be interesting to see the buying patterns of kids today once they reach adulthood and have to then shower their children with gifts.
I believe Cross’ argument about the true meaning of Christmas gifts for children. Today, Christmas gifts are not necessarily about making the child happy, or giving them the toy they’ve been waiting for all year; it’s about keeping up with the Jones’ and making sure everyone in the neighborhood knows that you are wealthy and financially stable enough to give your family everything they want and more. Of course, children will ask for lots of things, but many parents choose each year to get their children any and everything their child could even think to ask for.
Although it’s not blatantly stated in the Sega Genesis commercial below, it’s subconsciously telling the consumer (usually a parent) that if they get this gaming system, they will be the most popular household in the neighborhood, and it will signal to all the other parents that they are the most affluent ones on the block. The children will see the new gaming system, then go home to their parents and ask why they don’t have one. In an attempt to keep the love of the child, and show off to the neighborhood, the parent will usually go get the gaming system and a variety of games, thus signaling to the rest of the neighborhood that they too are wealthy.
Plenty of emphasis is placed on who has the most money, and who is living the best life these days. While it is considered crass to simply spend money on yourself and show off with your own personal items, it is seen as socially acceptable to bestow unnecessary gifts on children, so that they can do the bragging for you. That is what Christmas has come to mean.
The meaning of Christmas has changed drastically over the years, from plantation owners giving their slaves a small gift, to parents spending an excessive amount of money on their children to appease them. This new meaning of Christmas has happened for a couple of reasons, one being that society is becoming a lot more materialistic, but another, and a lot more prevalent, is what Gary Cross states in, “Modern Children, Modern Toys”, that, “The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence. And it did so without seeming to deny the work ethic or ‘normal’ values of thrift. (Cross 59)” To explain this, Cross believes that the reason that people are buying so many gifts and spending any amounts of money on them, is that it is a way to show your community how wealthy your are, but at the same time it is considered ‘ok’ and not snobby because it is Christmas. I agree with Cross’ thesis that parents spend a lot of money on Christmas because it is a time where they can do so while it is considered fine. This is clearly something that is happening in modern day culture, because we see it all over the place. While reading Cross’ article the first thing that came to mind that backed up his thesis was the movie “Jingle All the Way” (which you can read about here). In this movie Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a father who goes to great length fighting off policemen, a mailman, and numerous other adults just to get this action figure for his son. In the movie his motivation for getting this “turbo man” doll, is that everyone is getting one, so to look like a good dad he must get one for his son. While this movie goes to great extremes backing up Cross’ thesis, it does so nonetheless by showing the world this is how ridiculous we look, and this is what Christmas has come to, a battle for who can get better presents where the parents are even more happy than their children when they get the toy, Just Ask Arnold.
In Gary Cross’ “Modern Children, Modern Toys” chapter, he shares his thesis that Christmas giving provides an opportunity for modern parents to show off their wealth and spoil their children without coming off self-indulgent over-spenders. (59) In today’s modern society, Cross’ thesis still holds true, as many modern parents continue to feel obligated to spoil their children through Christmas gifts, often because they feel driven to keep up with the gift giving of their friends, families, or co-workers. The media leads modern parents to believe that their role in the Christmas festivities is to indulge their children’s desires and parents who do not fear being seen as lesser parents than their peers. The expectations of gift giving in American culture are hard to combat, as many bloggers have shown the excess to which modern parents are spoiling their children because of culture pressures. One blogger claims that the average American parent spends up to seven hundred fifty dollars each year on Christmas gifts. Perhaps the most driving point is the fact that some gaming consoles have sold for as high as 30,000 dollars on EBay in the pre-holiday rush. With parents spending in excess for consoles that might normally be in the 300-dollar range, it becomes clear that some modern parents feel the need to constantly strive for the best gifts to keep their kids in touch with the most up-to-date popular culture. Cross even claims that “Christmas had long given permission to extravagance” (59), emphasizing the point that parents feel the need to bombard their children with extravagant gift giving each December. With the added pressure given by the media in commercials and television, parents are constantly coerced into upping the Christmas giving each year. The Kmart commercial from 2010, in particular, emphasizes a large amount of gifts and even places the family in a setting in which they’re surrounded by other parents to impress. Kmart tries to make the excessive gift giving affordable in their advertisement, in order to give all parents a chance to impress their friends through gift giving. Trying to represent the ideal situation, parents then continue to purchase excesses of Christmas gifts and are able to show off their love for their child to all their friends through the seemingly excessive spending. Through examinations in blogs and commercial ads, it becomes clear that Cross’ thesis about the desire to spoil children during the holidays as a means of emphasizing economic stances is still present in modern-day gift giving.
In Gary Cross’ article Modern Childhood, Modern Toys he draws connections to Christmas and the meaning of Santa Claus. In the times after the Civil War, toys and play became a more prominent aspect of children and their developing childhoods. When Christmas was finally recognized as a true holiday, parents began to shower their children with gifts, not to secure loyalty or represent any power differential, but to strengthen the “emotional ties within the nuclear family” (Cross, 59). As the toy manufacturing companies began producing more and more toys, the original idea of toys being handmade and born from the heart started to fade, thus the idea of Santa Claus came to be. Children would write to Santa in the North Pole with their Christmas wish list and parents would go to seek the gifts the children asked for, only if the children’s behavior had been good.
From the movie A Christmas Story: a childhood favorite that depicts the spirit of Christmas for a young boy.
In our current society, much emphasis has been placed on electronic gadgets rather than the traditional knitted sweater from Grandma or handmade wooden trinket from Dad. Instead of transformers and comic books, little boys wish for Nintendo DS’ or an Xbox. Nevertheless, gifts have grown increasingly expensive and a strain has been placed on parents to provide their children with the perfect Christmas. Cross explains this strain as “Parents teach their children to believe that Santa will bring them heaps of toys which no one had to sacrifice or even pay for.” (Cross, 60) While a parent may be able to afford the Xbox 360, the games that accompany the console are still very pricey. In present day, a family’s wealth may be depicted by how many of these new era gifts are given at Christmas time. While the parents are not purchasing the gifts for themselves, or showing off their wealth in prestigious vehicles, all of the newly expensive Christmas presents will speak loud enough for that family’s status. In the commercials that air in preparation of Christmas, many of them this last year especially started to show mother’s (in particular) developing an obsession with purchasing everything they could without facing bankruptcy in order to provide their children with that perfect Christmas experience.
Some commercials went as far as to show mother’s competing with the made-up character Santa Claus, to prove that they no longer needed him to make their children happy. With all the discounts that stores give on the expensive presents, they could do it themselves. This commercial in particular shows the mother buying the fun, cool and most modern electronic gifts while Santa is trying to fit in a small wooden truck, that looks like it would have made a little boys day 60 years ago.
Over the course of the twentieth century, Christmas has taken on a new purpose due to evolving consumerism and industrialism in America. Parents have taken to a sort of vicarious consumption in order to both earn the love of their children, and to try and outdo their neighbors. In an effort to appear more affluent than others, parents are increasingly spending more and more on pricey Christmas presents for their children. In Cross’s article, “Modern Children, Modern Toy,” he discusses the effects of this changing mentality regarding the gift-giving side of the holidays. He says that, “When parents bestowed presents on their offspring, they also attempted to share their excitement with the wider world of new things” (Cross, 59). This is another side effect of this new found vicarious consumption. By overspending on gifts for their children around the holidays, parents are trying to live out their desire for excitement and fun through their children. The giving of gifts turns to a new way for the parent to connect with the child without appearing to overindulge or spoil them.
Ads like this, from large retailers such as Toys R Us, are aimed at parents as well as children and try to convince parents to purchase expensive gifts around the holidays through mechanisms like door-buster sales and free offers. By doing so, they can both appease their children, and not appear to be overindulgent to their friends and neighbors. This mentality developed throughout the twentieth century do to new innovations in toy manufacture, and new increased parental concern over their children’s boredom. These sorts of concerns have created an atmosphere garnered towards over-consumption, and in which parents feel obligated to shower their children with gifts in order to appear better parents.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.